Oil Spills and Health

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Oil spills are very complex events that, depending on where they occur, may result in acute exposures to nearby human populations. Regardless of the presence of humans, however, oil spills have the potential to produce long-term impacts on human well-being through impacts on ecosystems, food systems, livelihoods, and psychosocial effects. Over the past 50 years, dozens of moderate to large marine spills have provided unfortunate opportunities to study the long-term effects of these events on nearby communities. Although the general trend indicates a decrease in the overall size and number of marine oil spills from tankers (ITOPF, 2018), even a small spill can have devastating impacts on a community when it affects the industries and activities upon which the community depends. Furthermore, the volatile nature of hydrocarbon products can lead to secondary disasters, such as the explosion of a crude-bearing train in the town of Lac-Mégantic in July 2013, which killed 47 people.

The aim of this topic page is gather resources to understand the potential for the physical and psychosocial impacts of oil spills. We also provide guidance from public health agencies on planning for and responding to oil spills, and resources providing important insight for risk communication during spill events.


Please see our other Environmental Public Health Emergency Resources:


NCCEH Resources

  • Supporting Indigenous communities during environmental public health emergencies (Eykelbosh et al. 2018)
    This article presents some key considerations for public health practitioners engaging in an emergency response in an Indigenous community and/or their traditional territory. The paper draws on direct personal learning from the Nathan E. Stewart spill in Heiltsuk territory, and incorporates the perspectives of community leadership as well as the public health practitioners engaged in the response.
  • Health Effects of Oil Spills and Implications for Public Health Planning and Research (Eykelbosh, 2014) 
    This evidence brief provides a condensed review of a report commissioned by Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health entitled “Short- and long-term health impacts of marine and terrestrial oil spills” (provided below). These papers synthesized the academic research on the short- and long-term physical and mental health impacts of previous marine spills. The paper also identifies a number of means to mitigate health impacts post-spill and identifies key considerations for public health planning and research.


Selected External Resources

Health and community impacts

  • Effects of exposure to oil spills on human health: Updated review (Laffon et al., 2016)
    This article reviews the academic literature for information on the psychological, physiological, and other (genotoxic, immunotoxic, or reproductive) effects of oil spills on human. The authors included both coastal residents as well as clean-up workers in their review.


Response and recovery tools

  • Guidance for the environmental public health management of crude oil incidents (Health Canada, 2018)
    This guidance document provides detailed guidance for public health personnel involved in responses to crude oil spills. This document resulted from collaboration between the NCCEH and Health Canada and provides information on crude oil, its hazards, and its potential effects on health. The focus is primarily on acute exposure resulting from major incidents. This document is a key resource.
  • Oil Spills Resource Page (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, nd)
    This web page provide numerous resources regarding the management and clean-up of oil spills. The primary focus is occupational health and safety training for responders and clean-up workers, as well as links to other American federal agencies that are involved in spill responses. Additional resources from NIOSH on protecting workers can be found here.
  • Seafood Safety After an Oil Spill (NOAA, 2019)
    This web page provides tools and guidance documents to food safety personnel attempting to assess the safety of seafood products potentially impacted by an oil spill.
  • Creating a world-leading response system(Indigenous Marine Response Centre, Heiltsuk Tribal Council, 2017)
    After the Nathan E. Stewart oil spill, it was clear that the current oil spill response capacity of the central coast of BC was inadequate and unsafe. This report highlights where the need for response capability is most urgent and outlines a plan for an Indigenous Marine Response Centre (IMRC) near Bella Bella to address this need. This is accompanied by an investigation report, detailing the 48-hours after the grounding of the Nathan E. Stewart and the spill that followed. It also outlines the response efforts by the Heiltsuk, and the attendance of other organizations.




Last updated Sep 19, 2019